Monday, June 6, 2011

Interview With Dunia Best: Original Member Of The Slackers Founds Third Wave NYC Ska Band Agent 99

In an early 90's New York ska scene dominated by men, Dunia Best was a breath of fresh air.  Like Pauline Black of The Selecter (who is definitely a vocal influence), Best's voice would help define the many bands she would sing with, going from strong to vulnerable, soulful to sweet, breakneck to languid and then lovely.  Even more impressive was her ability to match her vocal style to the diversity of the songs she was singing, be it ska, reggae, punk, soul or new wave.

While she was there at the founding of The Slackers in the early 90's, she made her name with Agent 99, a seminal but short-lived New York ska band built around a core of musicians who have all gone on to other high-profile projects since their short tenure together in the mid-90's. Featuring Best on vocals (fresh off of singing on The Slackers first cassette-only release -- 'Do The Ska With The Slackers' -- released in 1992) and future Slackers, guitarist Jay Nugent and drummer Ara Babajian and his Leftover Crack co-member Alec Baillie, Agent 99 was notable for their ability to play many diverse musical styles well, and still maintain a consistent ska feel.

In many ways Agent 99 were the consummate mid-90's 3rd Wave American ska band,  but they never got the credit they deserved for the influence they had on the American ska scene. Much of that may have had to do with the fact that the band never released an album, just a handful of 7-inches and a 6-song demo tape. Nevertheless, Agent 99 probably had all the ingredients to be just as big (if not bigger) than another female fronted band from Orange County in California.  Lucky for us, Shanachie Records did collect all that released material, plus a few live tracks and some unreleased material to compile a retrospective titled 'Little Pieces'. Though long out-of-print, copies are still floating around eBay and the Internet.

So what did this band of former and future members of The Slackers come up with? According to a review of the 'Little Pieces' album when it was released in the 90's:
"Stylistically, Agent 99 were all over the map, and Little Pieces gives you a good look at the variety the band was capable of. The disc starts out strong with the peppy, danceable "Get a Grip," which features one of the most charming opening lyrics I've ever heard, "You're dunking milk on my Oreos." It's a sound not unlike that of the Selecter, only funkier. From there the band goes into the beautiful, melancholy "Walk," followed up by "Words," a track that almost sounds like Magadog working with another vocalist. Other winning tracks include the soulful, reggae influenced title track (complete with stunning flute solo), the sweet, poppy, and romantic "You Already Know," the compelling soul and smooth guitar of "Kingston on My Mind," the Minutemen-influenced punk ska of "Little Rude Ridinghood," and the New Wave/reggae flavor of "Happy?."
I was lucky enough to connect with Best, who took the time to share her memories and tell some stories about the New York ska scene of the early 90's that gave birth to Agent 99 and to the role that The Slackers played in inspiring her to start the band.  She would work with Ari Up of The Slits and later found the neo-soul Brave New Girl and later yet the drum and bass-influenced Dubistry.

Where did you grow up and what bands or music influenced you the most?
I grew up mostly in the Bronx. I went to elementary and middle school mostly at Dalton on the Upper East side. When I was twelve we moved to Maplewood, NJ, but the City never really left me. I grew up mostly where hip hop was born and although I didn't like it at the time, it influenced me immensely.

My parents are both musicians and they have equal influence on me stylistically. My mother was very into acoustic African music and dance and played in the groups Women of the Calabash and Ladygourd Sangoma. She was also HEAVY into disco remix 12 inches. We spent a lot of our home time listening to that stuff. My father is much more of a jazz head. Miles Davis is his favorite but he also likes a lot of free jazz like Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry and all that.

What I discovered for myself and what influenced me first was 80's new wave and ska, though I didn't know it was ska at the time. You know, English Beat, Specials, Madness, Selecter all that as well as early Human League, ABC, Duran Duran and bands like that. After that it was sixties rock rebellion music: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles also the Wailers' Burnin'. In my senior year of high school I heard Fishbone and found my musical home, essentially.

Then of course there was Blomdie and X-Ray Spex and the Slits and Ari Up who I became very close to before she died. She was probably my biggest influence as far as speaking my own mind and things like that.

Do you remember the first record or single that you ever bought?
The first album I bought was Shalamar's greatest hits. It was the only thing I knew I could bring home without any questions. The first album I bought after I stopped caring what my parents thought was the first Fishbone EP.

What inspired you to start singing?
Interesting word choice, because inspire can also mean to breathe in. Ever since I could make noise I sang.

Do you remember how you were first introduced to ska?
Well the first real official intro was with Vic of the Slackers. He ran down the list from "My Boy Lollipop" on. He took a lot of time to play me a lot of records.

You were an early member of The Slackers right? 
I met Vic Ruggiero in 1989 at freshman orientation at NYU.  Two years later he and the infamous Happy of Sic and Mad were selling books on Astor Place where we re-met. It was a few days later day, when I was invited to see the band at Space at Chase that I first heard of the Slackers. At that time, the band was Vic, Marcus Geard, TJ Scanlon and Luis Zuluaga. Later that night I joined the Special Potato crew, but not the band, since there was a strict no chicks policy.

On a whim one night the band decided to roam the streets serenading passersby in the East Village. We passed a storefront on second Avenue and first street that housed a theater company and an open mic. We were invited in.

I have a terrible habit of singing back up all the time, but Marcus seemed to like this and insisted at that moment that I join the band. It was also around this time that Marq Lyn a/k/a QMaxxx 420 joined the band. This is also when I met my best friend Gail.

Gail and I were attending school in Westchester and occasionally sleeping at Chez Slack on 23rd street. I kept playing with the Slackers during all that. But Vic was a boy of fickle taste and despite my obvious boon to the band (chuckle), decided it was in his best interest to let me go.

Fortunately, I had been building my arsenal of angry chick songs and soon came out with what would become Agent 99. That was 1992.

What was it like to be a founding member of The Slackers?
We had good times in those days. We called it the Summer of Love. It seems like I made it up, but it was real and sweet and memorable.

Let's see what was it like? We were all very ambitious. We spent hours and hours rehearsing and playing different instruments. Vic taught himself how to play ska piano over the summer since there was already guitar and a keyboard seemed like a good idea. Marq was brought in because they thought they needed a front man and Marq was vivacious and a great talker. I was pretty good with the vocals, but I was fabulous flirt and was stealing all the groupies.

There was always a posse of lots of different kinds of people. Very open door. Lots of lost souls and stowaways, myself included.

(Below is a version of Best singing on the early Slacker track 'You Don't Know I')

Tell me about Agent 99? How did you originally connect with the other members?
When I was starting Agent 99, I was really pissed off, so I was mostly running around screaming with a crappy electric guitar I bought from a friend at SUNY Purchase. I really wanted an all girl band, but I didn't know any girls who could play. I had my best friend Gail who sang back up and that was all. At the time, the band was going to be called Courageous Cat.

Somehow I ended up at Jay's apartment at a party or something. He had just shaved off a head full of dreads and was getting into reggae musically. He had a sweet Les Paul guitar, so I knew he had good taste. I asked him if he was good (at guitar) and he said yes. I believed him. And he was. So we put together my couple of songs and went looking for a drummer and a bassist.

We had a lovely guy playing bass with us, whose name escapes me. He was very nice, but his timing was off and eventually he moved to Oregon or something. It was the early nineties, after all.

I met Alec at ABC No Rio playing with an amazing band called No Commercial Value with Sturgeon Scott. SUCH a great band. They had this great singer named Olivia who had this great cranky little girl voice that just made her sound pissed off all the time. Anyway somehow Jay got Alec to sit in with us. Alec was awesome. He made us sound like a real band.

The first drummer we found is named John Alvarez. He was an incredibly sweet guy. Not exactly what we needed in a drummer though. I'm pretty sure my brother Ahmed tried to be our drummer, because I always get him to play drums with me. Finally, Jay was like, "I want to ask this friend of mine from NYU but he's really good so he might not want o play with us". Fortunately Ara and Alec had instant chemistry so I got lucky.

Jay thought of the name Agent 99 and so it was born.

For the uninitiated, how would you describe the sound of the band? What were some of your influences?
Agent 99 is what No Doubt has been trying to sound like since its inception. In fact, we're fairly certain they copped a few licks here and there. The Selecter and Pauline Black were influences as well as Bad Brains and Fishbone. the Minutemen are in there and the Clash. I would say the main influence though is pain.

The band started playing out during the height of third wave ska mania in the U.S.

Below are three songs from the 'Little Pieces' compilation -- 'Get A Grip', 'Little Pieces' and 'Little Rude Ridinghood):

What are your memories of the NYC and American ska scene of the early 90's?
Well, it was funny with '99 because we never quite fit into anyone's category. We opened for Sublime and played hard core shows and Oi shows and with the Toasters and stuff. We would draw huge crowds but labels like Moon Records wouldn't sign us.

I remember the scene being somewhat polarized. I hung around a lot of skinheads but they were like peaceful skinheads and Oi skinheads, not white power skins. There was a real divide between ska that was more funk oriented like Skinnerbox and ska that was more frat oriented like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. The scenes themselves were different and I would dress for each scene.

I remember that Vic made a conscious decision to be more like the Skatalites and Hepcat around then and I was all f that I'll do what I want. At some point the skinhead girls were all about the '99 so their boyfriends had to come to. That was around when the Oi/Skampilation thing happened.

We kind of broke off from the ska scene somewhat and found our way into the punk and hardcore scenes partially because we as a band couldn't play straight ska and be true to ourselves. I was actually surprised we weren't in that Afropunk movie because we played with all those guys like Bushmon and Funkface and Song of Seven.

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows that were particularly memorable during the early days of the band?
Well there was a day we played at the Tune Inn in New Haven. The first crazy thing is that there were a bunch of those Black Israelite dudes having a go at people around the corner. I was having a "lady day" and since the Tune Inn was a dry all ages club, I brought my own "pain killer". This was also during my whiskey-only diet plan.

Anyway, so my pain had been quelled and thirst quenched and I was wearing this fab long white dress and was just kind of feeling extremely female. I think someone in the audience said something about my dress being a wedding dress and I was like no one's gonna marry me and some kid said "I'll marry you!" That was pretty cute.

There was also the night River Phoenix died. We were playing in New Paltz with Perfect Thyroid. I was so bummed. I kept talking about it. It was Halloween. I was pretty devastated.

Tell me about the process of compiling Agent 99's only release 'Little Pieces'? It was a post-humous release right?
We basically just put together our first tape release of 6 songs, out subsequent recording with my brother Ahmed which was never released, and a recording we released as a 4 song vinyl EP. Then we tacked on a couple of live recordings. We released it after the band was dead, yes. I think that was mostly Jay.

How did you end up in Los Angeles in Dubistry? How would you explain the Dubistry sound? Was it the next step musically down the path from The Slackers and Agent 99?
The move to Los Angeles was a combination of the aftermath of September 11 and my husband getting into a PhD program at USC. We left behind our current band, Brave New Girl and still felt the need to play. Fortunately, my brother Ahmed, my default drummer lives in LA, so we kind of knew we'd at at least have a drummer. In a confluence of good fortune, Matt Urbania who played with the Easy Star All-Stars among others also moved to LA. We were introduced by our mutual friend Noah Schachtman who plays bass with Emch Subatomic and writes for Wired Magazine. Matt's musical path was extremely compatible with ours and Dubistry was born.

I thought of the name Dubistry because the music we were making came out of dub more than anything else. "We do things with dub" was my motto for us. My main idea was to have a live dub 'n' bass/jungle band. At some points we also had a DJ onstage with us. My brother would sing and play drums, which was pretty bad ass. I'm trying to revive a version of Dubistry in NY since we're all here pretty much.

Musically, it probably was a further step along, after Brave New Girl.

Tell me about your current project is Brave New Girl?
My husband Aram and I basically started Brave New Girl in 1995 because we were going insane and realized it was because we weren't playing music.

I initially hired Aram to play with Agent 99 while I thought it was going to survive. It didn't, but at least I always have a bass player when I need one. Anyway, while I was mourning the untimely demise of the '99, we built this new band with Todd Nocera who had played with the Boston bands Thumper and Groove This.

Once again, we have trouble fitting into a single category. We can play some killer dub, thanks to the recent addition of Matt who moved back to New York shortly after we did. We can play wicked jazz and some of our sounds venture into neo soul. We basically play music we like, rather than what some genre dictates, much like Agent 99. It really takes into account the songwriting skills of the whole band. It is greater than the sum of its parts.

I usually describe the sound as Erykah Badu meets Steely Dan, but it can sound like Paul Simon, Sade and even Agent 99.

Below is video of Brave New Girl with special guest Ari Up of The Slits:

What are your lasting memories of performing with Agent 99 and of the American ska scene of the 90's?
Lasting memories...I was so wasted...

I have this great memory of doing a little mini tour with the Slackers to Penn State. Ara was so sick of hearing ska that he could no longer take it. He just kept repeating "I'm in the mood for ska" with this maniacal grin on his face.

One night of scene solidarity: I was on line with my brother Khalid at a club with a dress code. I was all about f dress codes of course because deep down I'm actually a punk. Anyway, my brother is a very good looking guy and he was dressed very well and the a-hole at the door turned him away because they said his pants were too baggy. I went off on the idiot, my brother actually went home to change and I stormed off to CBGB, where I found some of my skinhead sisters playing pool. They helped me cool my head. Such a great group of friends.

It was always nice to walk into a show and see everyone dressed so nicely and behaving so well to each other. The ska scene, in my mind, was ultimately about fun and respect and good dancing.

My favorite memories are all about hanging out with the other musicians in my band and in the other bands and feeling very normal. I've spent a lot of my life being the freakiest person in the room and kind of being withdrawn and shy. I felt like I was my true self in those days in a way I had never been before. I used to invite people over for dinner and be very about the house and the home. I was clueless about most things, but I was really all about love and the power of love in this very fundamental way. I feel like we were all very innocent in this way and some of that innocence is still there. But we've definitely grown up.

Best has re-formed Brave New Girl and they play out around New York City often. Visit the band's web site for more information and details about upcoming shows.  Word has that Dubistry is also back in actiion.  Visit the band's Facebook page for more details.


Steve from Moon said...

What a fantastic, funny, insightful interview. I remember catching Agent 99 at a gig on Houston Street--they were really great and had a sound that set them apart from just every other ska band around NYC. Not sure why Moon didn't do anything with them--for what it's worth, I certainly was a fan. (Probably by the time we had the resources to offer them a deal they had already broken up?)

dubYoga said...

Nah, Moon was in some distress in those years I think. They were very strict about their ska and we leaned a little too hard toward punk I think. Also, there's a rumor of embezzlement that I've heard about that ties everybody in knots. Ah, the drama!

Dubistry, on the other hand is very willing to sign something I'm sure! :)

dubYoga said...

Also, I think that's not me on "You Don't Know I". I believe that's my old friend Alexis Thomason, a badass in her own right. My harmonies on that song are very different. Ira Heaps of Jammyland has what remains of my vocal parts for those recordings. (They were taped over. Yeah, shit got ugly for a minute.)

Kames Jelly said...

I first heard Agent 99 on the NY Beat: Breaking and Entering Comp. "Murder for Rent" blew me away but I never got around to tracking down a copy of Little Pieces. I do have the Agent 99 7" though. Classic stuff.

I saw Brave New Girl when they played one of Django's VC Parties at the Knit a while back. They started playing and I texted Django immediately and asked him if that was Dunia from Agent 99. I was blown away by the set they played. I still listen to the first Brave New Girl CD all the time, especially "Eighth Street".